Editorial: A Rose Revolution losing its bloom

 

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As voters go to the polls in Georgia today, the former Soviet satellite is facing the greatest challenge since its Rose Revolution in 2003.

Since then, the country has made startling progress. What was once a mafia-run, all-but-failed state has seen crime and corruption controlled, basic public services restored and the economy boosted to more than three times its original size. No wonder, then, that President Mikheil Saakashvili has enjoyed such popularity; or that Georgia has been championed as a "beacon of liberty".

But the cracks are starting to show. More than half of Georgians have no job and concerns about the slow progress of democratic reforms are gaining traction.

Cue Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire frontman of the Georgian Dream coalition. Until last week, the incumbent had a 20 per cent poll lead and little to fear. But the release of a video showing prisoners being tortured and raped by their guards has given weight to claims that Mr Saakashvili's once-laudable toughness on crime has morphed into authoritarianism. It also puts a question mark over unquestioning international support.

The President's backers say that the video is a set-up, that Mr Ivanishvili is a Kremlin stooge and that he will take Georgia back to the bad old days. Meanwhile, Georgian Dream accuses Mr Saakashvili of selling out the revolution and running a "criminal regime". Amid such vitriol, there is a real danger that today's vote will descend into violence. Dark hints about rigged polls are already being bandied and Mr Ivanishvili has equivocated as to whether he will accept defeat, even if international observers deem the elections fair.

The transition to European-style democracy was never going to be easy. Whoever wins today, their most pressing challenge will be to restore Georgia's rapidly fracturing national unity.

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